At long last I am re-reading some of Justice William O. Douglas’s heartfelt environmental writings from the 1950s. It was not a time for great conservation action. It was before the Wilderness Act. Before the Environmental Protection Agency. More than decade before DDT was banned. Years before lead additives were banned from gasoline…or house paint. There were no National Scenic Rivers, no air pollution regs. No Nuclear Test Ban Treaty [how many Millenials even know what “fall out” means? Lucky them]. It was a dreamland for polluters and resource exploiters.
No wonder so many right-wingers wanted Douglas drive off the Supreme Court. Douglas (1898-1980) was appointed to the court by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1939 when Douglas was only 40 years old.He was a native of Washington State.
But what Douglas had to say then is still relevant, touching and brave. Some select bits from My Wilderness The Pacific West. 1960.
Alaska’s Brooks Range: Brooks Range “…here were pools never touched by man—unspoiled, uncontaminated except by the fall-out from the atomic bombs that is slowly poisoning the whole earth.”
“We look to the heavens for help and uplift, but it is to the earth we are chained; it is from the earth that we must find out sustenance; it is on the earth that we must find solution to the problems that promise to destroy all life here.”
Charles Darwin in his Autobiography “If I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week; for perhaps the parts of my brain now atrophied would thus have been kept active through use. The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature.”
“I never sleep better than when I am under a tree, and all the trees I choose the Sitka spruce first.”
Hart Mountain in Eastern Oregon: “There is a place in man life’s for the antelope [pronghorn], just as there is for the whir of sage grouse and the song of the thrush. There would be a great emptiness in the land if there were no pelicans wheeling in great circles over Hart Mountain, no antelope fawn in its aspen groves, no red-shafted flickers in its willow. I say the same for the coyote and golden eagle.…This refuge will leave our grandsons and granddaughters an inheritance of the wilderness that no dollars could recreate… Those who visit Hart Mountain next century will know that we were faithful life tenants, that we did no entirely despoil the earth which we left them.”
“It struck me that man sometimes seems to crowd everything but himself out of the universe.”
“Mt. Adams is so high and massive it makes me shrink to the pint of ashes that man represents in the terrestrial scheme. The roar of the river comes faintly up the canyon. Above the road can be heard the whine of the wind. All else is quiet. A golden eagle soars high in the void, catching a wind current. Nothing else moves.”
“I have seen in my lifetime a wilderness of trails remade into a maze of roads. There is hardly a place these days a jeep will not reach. The network of roads is so vast and intricate that almost every wilderness area is threatened.”
“Man must be able to escape civilization if he is to survive. Some of his greatest needs are for refuges and retreats where he can recapture for a day or a week the primitive conditions of life.”
Olympic Mountains, Washington: “At least fifty living glaciers flank these peaks, three on Mt. Olympus being two miles or more in length.”
For a sad comparison of those glaciers, past and present, click here to see how many have gone and how few survive in any form.
Wikipedia says this about one of the many public spaces or institutions named after this great conservationist: “The 1984 Washington Wilderness Act designated the Cougar Lake Roadless area as the William O. Douglas Wilderness. This wilderness, which adjoins Mount Rainier National Park in Washington State, is named in his honor.”